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THE WORLD AS GIFT: WHAT IS GOING ON? 
SPACE IN THE CITY TALK, MAY 4 th 201 1 
Celia Deane-Drummond 

The possibilities for human flourishing in our present societies seem 
dwarfed by difficulties and environmental problems, not only in the 
developing world, but also in the developed world. In this talk, I will 
summarize what some of these difficulties are and why we need an 
alternative public voice on human flourishing that includes religion, 
ecology and theology. 

1. Introduction 

A purely statistical approach to human wellbeing makes for sober 
reading. Previous to the current economic crisis the number of people 
living on less than a dollar a day dropped from 1 .5 billion to 1 .1 billion 
over the last 20 years. Yet also during that time, the gap between rich 
and poor widened; instability increased, and environmental 
degradation is compounding still further the problems faced by fragile 
communities. The standard utilitarian model of economic growth and 
development presumed in the West is being exported to other cultural, 
social, political and economic and environmental contexts with 
relatively little consideration of its appropriateness in each case. 
Whilst some economic growth is vital for poverty reduction in the 
developing world, growth in GNP does not necessarily signal human 
happiness or even a reduction in poverty. 

Indeed, in the UK, as economic growth has risen, well-being has 
flattened out, social capital has declined and inequality has increased. 
The all pervasiveness of the market means that those public goods 
that were once thought of as a public right are now subject to ever 
greater pressures of commodification; education, health provision and 
environmental goods in the West are now increasingly geared towards 
individualistically crafted market demands and according to market 
outcomes. The goods that we wish to share with the least developed 



©2011 Celia Deane-Drummond 



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nations in the name of fostering human liberty turn out to be goods that 
are now becoming shorn from their social and institutional contexts. 
This is the final crowning glory of 'superdevelopment', a consumer 
society shorn from its roots. Embedded in 'superdevelopment' are 
addictive cultural patterns of consumption that Alistair Mcintosh terms 
'eco-cidal', self-destructive expressions of a cultural psycho- 
pathology. 1 Trying to find a technological solution to the problem 
misses the point, the economic systems cannot simply be repaired in 
order to function better, rather, the basis on which that system is based 
needs to be challenged. 

The process of 'superdevelopment' is not, however, inevitable or 
simply due to the dominance of capitalist economics. Rather, as Pope 
Benedict XVI has claimed in his most recent encyclical Caritas in 
Veritate on authentic human development that 'Without internal forms 
of solidarity and trust, the market cannot completely fulfill its proper 
economic functions'. 2 Part of the problem here is that the market itself 
becomes an ideology that allows it to be used for selfish ends rather 
than for building up the common life. 

The financial crisis has also demonstrated that whilst integration into 
the global economy has brought benefits to some people in developing 
countries, progress made can be wiped out in a matter of months as 
those developing countries are very vulnerable to global commodity 
prices and to a system dominated by much bigger players. Based on 
the current model of economic growth, for poor people to get a bit less 
poor, rich people have to get very much richer and in the process, use 
up an increasing amount of ecological space. If everyone in the 
developing world were to live like us in the UK we would need three 
planets. 



1 Alastair Mcintosh, Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human 
Condition (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2008) 

2 Pope Benedict XVI Caritas in Veritate, paragraph 35. 



©2011 Celia Deane-Drummond 



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Climate change is now threatening to undermine even the basic goods 
gained through development policies in order to enable survival for the 
poorest communities of the world. Some have argued that we are 
close to a tipping point, when the natural stability of the global climate 
system will suddenly collapse until a new steady state is reached. This 
new state will be one that makes vast tracts of the earth virtually 
inhabitable for many human populations, especially those living in the 
poorest parts of the world who are least able to adapt. But even more 
conservative estimates show up the increasing fragility of ecological 
systems, including threats to human livelihoods in poverty stricken 
vulnerable regions. 

Such changes are not only disturbing, but imply amnesia wrought of 
our own life styles shorn from traditions that once brought stability and 
hope. 

2. Human Flourishing 

The present ecological and development crisis expresses in some 
sense a loss of what it means to be human. Given the scenario above 
it may be that we are blinded to what this is. Ecological goods are 
those that relate to the fact that it is no longer possible to think of 
human life in isolation from the ecological context. It is not enough, in 
other words, just to consider our own family, or society, rather, human 
society is bound up with the lives of other living forms. 

It is worth asking if we have now reached a cultural tipping point, 
where the continued oppression and disempowerment of those denied 
access to basic goods combined with the excess and surfeit of goods 
in richer, consumer societies has gone too far, engendering a political 
and global instability that is potentially explosive. In this case, attempts 
by governments and policy-makers to solve complex problems through 
technocratic means are bound to fail. They fail because in the first 
place technology does not explore the underlying roots of what may or 
may not have gone wrong. It fails in the second place to fire the social 
and religious imagination. An imaginative response is needed in order 



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to generate sufficient hope that will lead to widespread cultural change. 
Yet the seeds of hope are there, since the generous response of the 
public to natural and other disasters shows that the collective public 
conscience in the face of dire need has not disappeared. Think of 
recent natural disasters in Japan, for example. What is much harder is 
to convince those in the richer, Western societies that a change in 
lifestyle is required in order to begin address the massive global and 
social disparities between access to resources, both between different 
nations, and even within nations. 

What is missing, therefore, is a strong sense of identity that allows 
human beings to take fuller and deeper responsibility appropriately 
rooted in a particular hope that believes that transformation and 
another world is possible. 3 Institutional religion has, it seems, failed to 
deliver the goods of security and identity in Europe that many have 
sought in previous generations. Our sense of vocation, a call to 
holiness of life expressed in practical, dynamic acts of generosity to 
each other and our neighbours, near and far, has become dim. So has 
our sense of being embedded in the natural landscape, a strong sense 
of identity with place. Yet the challenges of pervasive injustices are 
such that without a sense of vision it is unlikely that any will choose to 
act. 

3. The Turn to the Self 

One of the most marked characteristics of liberal, Western society is 
the focus on individual choice, the elevation of the self and a stress on 
personal autonomy. Such a focus leads to a disconnection of self from 
others, and a breakdown in relationships, alongside an attempt to fill 
the void through a craving for individual freedom expressed as a desire 
for personal autonomy. In Western society individual choice and the 
satisfaction of our individual desires seem to trump all other ethical 
considerations. It is as if human dignity is narrowly pursued just in 



3 See Caritas International, Climate Justice: Seeking a Global Ethic, working 
document, October 2009. 

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terms of particular individual choices, rather than a richer 
understanding of human personhood. 

Consumerism also expresses this distortion of desire, even if in some 
cases temporarily curtailed by economic pressures. But conforming to 
a culture of such individual consumerism does not lead to real 
happiness. In our own U.K. context it also pervades the lives of 
children, especially girls, who are commonly subject to depression, 
lack of self-esteem and underachievement. 4 Children in Britain are 
growing up in one of the most privileged nations in terms of Gross 
National Product, but, like those in the USA, are among the unhappiest 
in the world. 

Trends in developed societies include not just an increasing 
individualism and focus on autonomy and individual freedom, but also 
disconnection from the social and natural fabric of human lives, 
especially in the Western world. Christian beliefs that focused on the 
individual will committed the same error. 5 This historical mediation of 
ideas is important, as it means that we cannot analyze where we are 
now without some awareness of where we have come from, our 
shared history. 

If we anaesthetize the reality of human brokenness, and breakdown in 
relationships with others, sometimes leading to violent eruptions, then 
a narcissistic fearful turning inward is likely to be expressed in 
extremes of passive apathetic depression or hyper-activity, leading to a 
lack of trust in both individuals and political institutions 6 , or over 
confidence in our ability to solve problems. Neither is helpful. 



4 For statistics see, for example M.P.'s report by Alastair Burt, Andy Reed, Caroline 
Spelman, Gary Streeter and Steve Webb, Faith in the Future: Working Towards a 
Brighter Future (London: Insight Design, 2008) 

5 Known in theological jargon as voluntarism, this understood the exercise of power 
over property is the jus or right of individuals, where God's power is arbitrary. 
Although Millbank names this idea as a heresy, the point is that theology 
influenced the cultural climate in a profoundly significant way. See John Millbank, 
1986, 'The Body By Love Possessed: Christianity and Late Capitalism in Britain', 
Modern Theology, 3 (1) 35-65. 

6 See Faith in the Future, cited above. 



©2011 Celia Deane-Drummond 



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The lack of connectedness with each other expressed in lack of trust is 
also reflected in a wider brokenness and disconnection with the natural 
world, a failure to recognize that we are part of a wider ecological 
network of living relationships. Dependence on others and awareness 
of the creaturely nature of the human condition shows that it is the 
acknowledgement of human vulnerability and proper response to 
disability in self and others that makes us truly human. 7 

4. Religion and the Public Sphere. 

When politics is thought of as secular, then it is freed of the influence 
of religion that retreats into the private sphere. However the secular 
nature of politics is not as clear-cut as it seems, since it still carries 
echoes of its earlier interwoven history. To claim that Christianity has 
had no influence on the way so-called 'secular' politics has emerged is 
therefore a mistake. Further, some distorted theologies from an earlier 
epoch may appear in a disguised secular form. One role of theology 
may be to try and tease this process out. 

Bald political injunctions to elevate family life or support international 
development, deprived of any sense of direction are bound to sound 
hollow. The government white paper Building Our Common Future 
used the language of moral Tightness of giving aid to developing 
countries, followed closely by self interest in terms of building up future 
markets for UK goods. To try and transform other nations into 
consumer cultures in the name of progress is not morally right. The 
question then becomes, whose justice should we follow, which 
rationality? 8 For philosopher Alastair Maclntyre, tradition situates our 
rationality, so that we arrive at rationality relative to our own particular 
tradition. Does that mean that each standard of reasoning and justice 
has as much or as little claim to my allegiance as any other? Does 
truth simply depend on my particular perspective? Certainly where a 



7 Alasdair Maclntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the 
Virtues (London: Duckworth, 1999). 

8 This is the title of the sequel to After Virtue, A. Maclntyre, Whose Justice? Which 
Rationality? (London: Duckworth, 1988). 



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strong sense of community tradition is missing, other goods start filling 
the gap that once took its' place. William Cavanaugh makes the point 
starkly in talking about how we are coerced into buying goods that we 
do not really want due to the power of marketing. In other words, in the 
absence of any objective moral standards, something else takes its 
place in the form of an ideology that fills the gap that was once held by 
traditional religious beliefs. 

But in such a scenario is a simple recovery of tradition, as suggested 
by Maclntyre, really enough? Increasing awareness of climate change 
has brought to the surface knowledge of our interconnectedness in 
global terms, that what we do and choose in our own daily lives has an 
impact through a myriad of other similar decisions on the lives of those 
in other parts of the world. Globalization is pervasive in human 
societies, but climate science brings to the surface a natural 
globalization- a global ecology. If humanity makes choices for 
continued growth economics that disrupt local and global ecological 
systems then the risks are predictable but their extent is not known 
with absolute certainty. 

The assumption of classical economics is that people will always make 
the most reasonable choices, but this is clearly not always the case. 9 
Alternative models of economics that take into account more than just 
human rationality are therefore likely to be more effective in dealing 
with complex global issues. This is one reason why it is so important to 
stress what Pope Benedict XVI names in Caritas in Veritate as an 
economics of gratuitousness, a pervasive sense that all relationships 
need to be marked by gift, for this amounts to a way of living 
economically that takes global solidarity seriously. 



Paul Ormerod, Butterfly Economics: A New General Theory of Economic and 
Social Behaviour, London: Faber and Faber, 1999. 



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5. Towards A Theological Mandate for Environmental 
Responsibility 

While in secular discussion the term 'environment' is sometimes used, 
or sometimes 'stewardship' in religious contexts, such language 
becomes problematic if it confers the sense of humanity managing the 
earth, and therefore implies that somehow the natural world is 
separate from human living and human ecology. 10 Human life is deeply 
embedded in diverse ecosystems. In religious language the word 
'creation' shows up the distinctive belief that the relationships in which 
we find ourselves are creaturely, that is, we are creatures alongside 
other creatures. Creation also implies that all creatures exist in 
relationship with God, as Creator of all that is. Such relationships may 
be broken or marred. The biblical record of human sinfulness is not just 
individual wrong-doing and abuse of freedom, but comes to be 
expressed through oppressive social and political structures. 
Historically, since the Enlightenment, much Christian theology has also 
contributed to the problem of personal disconnection by focusing on 
humanity alone and ignoring other creatures and the wider ecological 
matrix of relationships. 

A much more ancient tradition of the early Church stressed the 
importance of understanding human life in embodied relationships with 
all life forms and accountable to the Creator, rather than in 
individualistic or narrowly human terms. 11 The ancients envisaged all of 
life as a stable balanced system of unchanging forms existing in a 
hierarchical arrangement, where human agents were mediators 
between God and creation. The most common cultural attitude towards 
the natural world up until a few hundred years ago was predominantly 
one of fear. The ancient fathers were therefore speaking into a context 



10 The varieties of use of the term stewardship and its biblical mandate is outside the 
scope of this paper. However, if its use implies management, then it needs to be 
avoided. 

11 For an excellent summary of Orthodox thinking on this issue, see Elizabeth 
Theokritoff , Living in God's Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (New 
York/Crestwood: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009). 



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that has some resonance with our own terrors as to the future of life on 
earth. All life, according to this view, is a precious gift from God, to be 
respected and nurtured. Freedom is now understood according to 
community goals as freedom to act well in solidarity with those who are 
poor and in solidarity with the earth. 

The idea of stable life forms gave way to the idea of changing forms 
with the rise of evolutionary theories, but the notion of the balance of 
nature persisted and is still remarkably common in public 
consciousness. Today ecologists envisage a much more fluid, dynamic 
ecological system that is subject to change and disturbance. It is this 
very possibility of disturbance that is felt so keenly through disruptions 
to ecosystems by changes in climate or more direct human 
interventions, such as pollution. 

The Jewish institution of the Sabbath reflects an earlier mandate of the 
sabbath of creation, so that according to this tradition the crown of 
creation is not humanity, but humanity in relationship with all creatures, 
celebrated by the Creator. In this view, it is flourishing of all life that is 
affirmed, not just human life in isolation. Such values were eventually 
transported into the Christian idea of Sunday. The squeezing out of 
this rhthmn of the working week in the Western world in the name of 
economic prosperity and individual choice epitomises the 
disconnection from both creation and ancient religious traditions. But it 
also leads to a damaging view of human life as one that has no rhythm 
or place to reflect. Without that space it becomes difficult to make 
correct decisions, especially decisions under pressures of growing 
global complexity. 

If prosperity is re-defined not narrowly in terms of income, but in a 
richer more relational way in terms of human flourishing, then the 
possibility of some growth in the poorest regions of the world alongside 
a reduction in growth or 'downsizing' in other regions becomes more 
realistic. As economist Tim Jackson comments, 'Prosperity consists in 
our ability to flourish as human beings - within the ecological limits of a 



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finite planet. The challenge for our society is to create the conditions 
under which this is possible. It is the most urgent task of our times'. 12 

Humanly induced climate change is just one symptom of unsustainable 
patterns of production and consumption. This is why we can speak 
openly of climate justice; those who have contributed the very least to 
climate impacts in terms of carbon footprint are recipients of the most 
drastic impacts of floods, drought and associated food insecurity, 
disease and other environmental hazards. If the climate change debate 
has shown up anything, it is the interdependence of people and planet; 
the two cannot be sheared apart but need to be thought through 
together. 13 

Misguided attempts to gain 'carbon credits' have even seen forest 
clearance in parts of Mozambique for biofuels, making a mockery of 
the reason why biofuels are sought as an alternative. The Ecuadoran 
government pledge not to drill for oil in environmentally sensitive 
rainforest if funds are donated might seem like a breakthrough for 
climate change, but this kind of blackmail is somewhat morally 
suspect. 14 It is also doubtful that the international community will ever 
raise sufficient funds in order to prevent such action. 

Christianity does offer profound intrinsic reasons why people should be 
given value and dignity drawing on the idea of humans as being made 
in the image of God. It also offers a reason for earth care through its 
belief in creation as a gift from God and the total self-offering of love of 
God for the world in the incarnation. Further, it has a way of 

12 Prosperity Without Growth? The Transition to a Sustainable Economy Sustainable 
Development Commission, 2008. 

13 Global environmental harms are not simply confined to climate change. The loss of 
myriads of plant, insect and animal species through extinction is exacerbated 
though loss of habitat. Ecologists do not even gain the opportunity to identify most 
of these species before they disappear. Some of this is due to the clearing of the 
rain forests, often to meet the needs for consumer goods by wealthier nations. 
These forests, as a source of rich biodiversity as well as what climate scientists 
call carbon capture, are also home to native indigenous populations that are losing 
their livelihoods. 

14 http://www.newscientist.com/article/mq20427323.200-pay-us-oil-money-or-the- 
rainforest-gets-it.html , 'Pay us oil money or the rainforest gets it', news report, New 
Scientist Issue 2732, 3 November 2009, accessed 20 th February 201 0. 



©2011 Celia Deane-Drummond 



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responding to suffering and the breakdown of relationships by offering 
a narrative about Christ as one who suffered, died and rose again. The 
possibility of reconciliation between people and between people and 
planet is the basis for hope, not just in an individual sense, but also at 
a wider societal level. 



©2011 Celia Deane-Drummond